Exactly a decade ago, neuroscientist Eric Kandel won the Nobel prize for Medicine and Physiology (1). An illustrious career in synaptic research got him to the top of his profession. And his century-closing award was well-deserved. Looking back over his experimental achievements one cannot help but admire Kandel’s dedication. He spent the better part of a quarter of a century studying the nervous system of the sea slug Aplysia (1). By exposing these creatures to continuous streams of noxious stimuli he was able to draw out a memory response that endured for weeks (1). So began a quest to decipher the molecular underpinnings of long term memory which we now know to involve a slew of transcription factors and other proteins that regulate gene expression (1).
“Memories define who we are, where we have been and help guide our day-to-day actions”, noted Georgia Institute Of Technology psychologist Audrey Duarte (2). Professor Stephen Rose from Britain’s Open University also spoke of how memory “shapes our autobiography” (3). In celebration of Kandel’s achievements I offer here a personal selection of autobiographical memories. These are my reflections on the mirrors of time. Most are good, some are painful, but all have molded who I have become:
(1) A game of tag at the casino? As kids my brother and I would hang out in a casino in the heart of Portugal’s Estoril. We would have a blast (even organize the odd birthday party or two). But no, we were not young gamblers fritting our money away on slot machines and card tables. We were just regular kids playing in the casino gardens and watching movies at the annexed cinema building. The entire entertainment complex looked out over a park filled with colorful child-sized metal toadstools (stainless steel versions of smurf-style Amanita muscaria) just big enough for us to hide in. And hide in them we did. As parents watched on from the sidelines we would run around elusively sticking ourselves inside these fake mushrooms. I can just picture my dad saying in his inimitable word-play humor “Not much-room in that mush-room”. That same casino was where I saw my first Bugs Bunny movie and it was where my first school friends and I met after cake and milk on Saturday afternoons. It is downright bizarre to think that a center for gambling would also turn out to be a crucible of innocent fun for a throng of five year olds.
(2) Gun and knife horrors: When I was eight years old I lived through the full force of an armed robbery. As my brother and I played blithely with friends in the front porch of our house in São Paulo, Brazil one afternoon, three men armed with guns walked in through the gate and demanded we enter the house. My father had not yet returned from work. So my mother was left to offer whatever little comfort she could to us children as two of the men did the rounds for anything that might fetch a high selling price on the black market. Locked up while our assailants made their getaway, our nightmare ended minutes later as police patrol cars swarmed through an otherwise quiet residential street. History would repeat itself a few months further along as I was held at knife point on the street by a thug, dead set on ripping my watch off my wrist. Most traumatic of all however was the day we came back from a family holiday that same year to find that our beloved dog Cheyenne had been stolen.
(3) ABBA in the car: Vacationing together was a theme in our family. Our long car drives across Portugal and Spain, from Lisbon to Bilbao, were nothing but pure unadulterated fun. At times we hoped that we would never reach journey’s end just because the winding roads of northern Spain gave us all we wanted. Sitting in the very back of our Chrysler Avenger station wagon my brother and I would turn on his portable cassette recorder and listen to ABBA songs (yes, I admit I was a fan) for hours at a stretch. And when the joy of that particular regalement had worn thin, we would jump over to the passenger seat where our mother would read to us about the fictional paladins of the time. Tintin, Asterix and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five were my number one picks. To round off the days we would perhaps catch an evening soccer match on my portable radio. When we moved to Brazil, routines changed. But our vacationing priorities remained. Seaside camping trips were almost a given element of our summer holidays. And inevitably the car would once more become a hub for playful banter as we crossed mountains and plains on the way down to the Brazilian coast.
(4) The single greatest outpouring of insect life: One evening when my parents lived in Rio de Janeiro I was confronted by the sight of cicadas that had come out of the ground to breed ahead of their impending death. Writer Jill Carattini so poignantly wrote of this, the final stage in the life cycle of these creatures, as a horrific event in which they “emerge from their secret bug lairs after 17 years to mate and lay….500 trillion eggs” (4). The cicada breeding frenzy is “the single greatest regular outpouring of insect life on the planet“- a reminder of the “untamed nature” that surrounds us (1). One summer August day, while cleaning out the gutters of our house in Wisconsin, I spotted a cicada lying dead on one of the shingles of our roof. Thinking back to my first sighting of these innocuous creatures, when we lived thousands of miles away in the warmer climes of South America, what impacted me most was how quickly they die after emerging from their subterranean existence.
(5) A journeying family that journeyed as a family: The diplomatic lifestyle has without a doubt buttressed my adult viewpoint on the importance of family life. The joint adventure of changing countries every four or five years instilled in me a sense of togetherness that never waned. We started off our peregrinations in the northern Spanish town of Bilbao, then moved to Coimbra in central Portugal, onwards to Lisbon and then across a vast ocean to São Paulo, Brazil. Five years later we traveled back to the UK for a momentary hiatus from our international existence before returning to Brazil (Rio de Janeiro) and onwards to Ecuador where I met my wife. Intermeshed between our whirlwind moves were seven years of boarding school, exchange studentships to the United States and Greece and a brief period in France (where I engaged in my first spate of university post-graduate work). Such was the bedrock of love that I grew up with- always together, never apart. Ours was a journeying family that journeyed as a family.
(6) Dad’s godly powers (I wish!): My oldest son really believes that I have other-worldly abilities. So much so that he once requested that I stop the onward march of time. He now knows better. There are marked limits to even what I am capable of. More recently the nature of his statements has changed as he has learned about the ‘cause and effect’ aspects of the physical phenomena he observes. When he was only four years old, I vividly recall him shouting across the park clearly anxious to impart some important words of wisdom: “Dad, the moon comes up and then goes down at night and then there is a big storm with rain and then the sun comes up and brings the flowers that we can pick for our mums and dads and brothers and sisters”. Days later he became excited over carbon dioxide gas coming from a home-made reaction we had devised in the kitchen using egg shells and vinegar. “Dad” he asked inquisitively “is this gas like the gas chemical reaction that comes with my poopy?” Letting nothing pass him by, my younger son now imitates his brother’s quest for rational explanations such as when my wife stopped him midway through a heavy candy-munching session and asked what the sweetie was that he had just plopped into his mouth. Seeing the resemblance between the spherical shape of the big white gobstopper he was chewing on and the lump of rock he occasionally observes in the night sky he triumphantly replied, “the moon, the moon, the moon!”
(7) The case of the missing soccer ball: I remember vividly the day I first realized that there was something amiss with my eye sight. I was four years old. And as I was prone to do after coming home from school, I stared out of the window of our house soaking in the scenery. It was a beautiful house on a street that was surrounded by dense forests, located just five minutes away from cinemas, white sandy beeches and of course the casino. Glancing over the tree tops from the balcony that spanned the back of the house, one could see the boats sailing out into the ocean beyond. But on this particular afternoon I was surprised to find that there were two blue soccer balls rolling about in the wind in our back garden. My parents had bought me a ball for Christmas. And while I had plenty of other balls of a variety of sizes and shapes lying around in my room, I was certain that no two were identical. Something was wrong. I rushed down the stairs and out the front door to investigate the anomaly. As I trotted across the yard I was surprised to find that one ball had disappeared. Losing no time I bolted back and peered out of the upstairs window and once again saw the two balls, about a meter apart. I repeated the stair-running ritual at least three times before giving up and asking my mum for help. She confirmed seeing only one ball from every angle she looked from. Her conclusion was troubling: “We had better have your eyes checked” she patiently proclaimed. A visit to the optician confirmed my mother’s fears. I had what the white-coats call strabismus (‘cross-eyes’ for the rest of us). And I would need glasses from that moment onwards. I am reminded of that day’s transformative power every time I take my specs off in the evening. Without them I see two of everything. I am gifted with a double portion of blessing for all that is beautiful and cursed with a double portion of bad fortune for all that is unsightly.
(8) Can I have fresh eggs for breakfast? My dad had an easy way of remembering my grandmother’s age “She is ten years younger than the century” he would say. For a child that short statement simplified the mathematical gymnastics of calculating how old our ‘granny’ was. At the same time it made her appear all that more extraordinary. With so much time on this earth, she had to have been a lady with copious amounts of wisdom. Sadly she passed away at the age of 94. My recollections of my grandmother are few and far between. Rumor has it that before coming to visit us in Portugal for the first time in 1978, she asked whether she would be able to get fresh eggs for breakfast. Apparently fearful of the unknown she seriously believed she would not be able to savor the same habitual delights in a land detached from her southern English home. She arrived with my father’s aunt Jeane (who wasn’t really his aunt but might as well have been given their closeness). And like all good relatives my grandmother brought presents for us kids- Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and an oversized version of Milton Bradley’s (MB) family tabletop game Connect Four. When in England we would frequently stop off at her house ‘on the way’ to some other important family function. We would play in her living room with cousins we barely knew although that never seemed to stop us from having a grand old time together. One very real element of who my grandmother was has been indelibly scribbled into a book that today sits on a bookshelf in my sons’ playroom. Our copy of When We Were Very Young by British author A.A Milne has a note on the first page: “To Dominic on his first birthday, with love from Great Grandma, 14.6.03”.
(9) Diving my way into independence: At the age of sixteen I traveled down to the south coast of England to complete my training for the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) Sports Diver certificate. After one last hug from my parents and brother, I boarded a train from London’s Waterloo station down to the quiet seaside resort of Bournemouth where I was taken under the wing of relatives. For the next two weeks I commuted from their home to the nearby harbor town of Poole and headed out on a rigid hull inflatable boat with five other students to complete a series of required dives. The testosterone-induced camaraderie soon brought us together into a close-knit group. We were assigned our respective diving ‘buddies’- a practice that is almost a mandatory requirement of amateur sport diving. We quickly learned the diving lingo and were Hi-fiving our way to the end of each day.
All of our sorties out to sea went according to plan. That is, until the final evening. As we headed back to the safety of the mooring station the weather took a turn for the worst. Surging waves reduced visibility to little more than a few feet and with the skies quickly blackening we knew we were in trouble. The pilot of the boat promptly radioed for help and minutes later we were rescued by the coastal ‘cavalry guard’ in the form of a British Navy Sea King helicopter. Fortunately the frightful experience of being stranded out at sea ended without further complications. The Sea King guided our boat to the calmer waters of a local bay and we were able to head home to feast on fried fish wrapped in greasy and vinegar-sodden newspaper.
I have often thought back over that entire two-week adventure. It was the first time that I ‘went it alone’. My family had remained back in London while I had journeyed over 100 miles to learn what it meant to be independent.
1. The Science Book, Ed. by Peter Tallack, Published in 2003 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, UK
2. Memory And Aging Lab, The Georgia Institute Of Technology, See http://www.psychology.gatech.edu/duartelab/
3. Method Of Memory, See http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/sci_tech/highlights/memory.shtml
4. Jill Carattini (2004), Untamed Nature, Slice 643 in “Slice of Infinity”, Copyright (c) 2004 Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM)